Memo to the new Republican House majority: Be careful what you wish for.
The House failed this week to approve an emergency extension of parts of the USA Patriot Act, in large part because 26 Republican lawmakers—eight of them freshmen—balked at extending the controversial law. The act, speedily approved by a spooked Congress after the 9/11 attacks, was touted as a way to give authorities more power to conduct surveillance, hopefully thwarting another terrorist attack. But civil libertarians in both parties have since questioned the sections of the law which allow sweeping authority to monitor U.S. citizens, even those not connected to a terrorist group.
Despite rhetoric that casts skepticism of the USA Patriot Act as a liberal mission, the matter is a signature issue for genuine conservatives. If conservatives truly believe in small government and the rights of the individual, then allowing the government broad authority to wiretap or to scour library records should be part of their hit list. Former Sen. John Sununu, a New Hampshire Republican and one of the most intellectually consistent of the Hill’s professed conservatives, advocated tweaks to the USA Patriot Act when he served in office. While the incoming House Republicans are still defining themselves, putting the brakes on an extension of parts of the law shows some promise that they are keeping to small-government principles. [See the month's best political cartoons.]
But there is another important question here, and that is of the use of House rules to attempt passage of a complex and controversial piece of legislation without debate. Tuesday night votes in the House are typically on apolitical items—naming a post office, for example—and are approved "under suspension," meaning they don’t need to go through the usual legislative process. Such measures require a two-thirds vote, which the House GOP leadership failed to achieve this week. Democrats, rightly, complained mightily when Republicans abused the rules during their last era of majority rule; Republicans, also rightly, issued the same complaints of Democrats when they were recently in control. While there is a strong argument for temporarily extending laws and funding for programs Congress is still fighting about, it should not be used as a tool to avert necessary debate on any issue.